You probably don't need such an advanced home networking device like the new Asus RT-AC68U Dual-band Wireless-AC1900 Gigabit Router, but you want it, and when you get it, you'll love it.
This router is an excellent upgrade to the already-excellent RT-AC66U that came out a year ago. The new router boasts a fast 800MHz dual-core processor and supports a new Wi-Fi chip that offers up to 1.3Gbps speed on the 5GHz frequency band and up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. It also comes with a new firmware that adds a host of new features.
In my testing it proved to be the fastest Wi-Fi router to date by a significant margin, and also a fun router to use. It basically has everything you'd want from an excellent router, for both homes and small businesses.
Yet, I find it not necessarily perfect for everyone, mostly due to its current high price of about $220, and the fact that you'll need equally high-end Wi-Fi clients to really take advantage of its new fast Wi-Fi speeds. But that aside, as far as Wi-Fi routers go, it's easily the fastest and most comprehensive home networking device to date. For more options on great 802.11ac routers, including those that are more affordable, check out this list.
New design, top hardware components
The RT-AC68U departs from the old design found in the previous models -- the RT-N66U and RT-AC66U -- that stay flat on the surface or tilt 45 degrees with a stand. It now comes in an upright position with no option for wall mounting. It still resembles the predecessors, however, with the solid build and the glossy dark gray finish that doesn't attract fingerprints. The new standing design also means that the router now takes up less space though it's actually slightly larger and heavier than its older brothers. It also comes with three external detachable antennas.
On the inside, it's completely different, boasting the new Broadcom BCM4709 Wi-Fi chipset, an Arm Cortex A9 dual-core 800MHz CPU, and 256MB of DDR RAM. This is the first router I've seen with these high-end specs, though I'm sure other vendors will soon introduce similarly featured products. The RT-AC68U also includes two USB ports, one of which supports USB 3.0.
The most interesting of the above components is the Broadcom BCM4709 chipset, which includes the proprietary TurboQAM technology. This chip offers 802.11ac up to 1.3Gbps, which is not new, but for 802.11n on the 2.4GHz frequency, it now offers up to 600Mbps (up from the old 450Mbps cap speed). (Read more about Wi-FI standards here.) With TurboQAM, each 2.4GHz spatial stream can deliver up to 200Mbps instead of 150Mbps. Needless to say, this chip offers more benefits to the now aging 2.4GHz Wi-Fi than the newer 5GHz Wi-Fi, though you need a TurboQAM-compatible wireless client to really take advantage of it. Current and legacy clients will also see better performance, though not as significant.
On the front, the router has the usual array of LEDs that show the statuses of the ports on the back, the connection to the Internet, the USB ports, and the wireless networks. These lights are very helpful in case you want to glance at them to check on the router's condition. However, if you're bothered by them, you can turn them off via a button on the back of the router. This is really a nice design touch that helps make the router bedroom-friendly.
Also on the back, the router has four LAN ports for wired clients and one WAN port to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem. All of these ports are Gigabit Ethernet, which is a must for a fast local network with superfast Internet connection. In addition to being a router, the RT-AC68AU can be used as an access point or a media bridge (you can choose among these roles via its Web interface, in Wireless section under Advanced Settings), and when it's not working as a router, the WAN port can also be used as another LAN port.
On the side, the router has a Wi-Fi on-off button and the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button, which starts a 2-minute window in which other WPS-enabled clients can enter the wireless network. By default, the WPS function is disabled and can be turned on via the router's Web interface, also in the Wireless section.
Easy to set up, robust Web interface, familiar features
Very similar to the previous model, the RT-AC68U comes with a CD that contains setup software that guides home users through the process via a few steps. But you can skip this CD because once the router is plugged into a computer and turned on, the first time you run a Web browser, such as Firefox, it will take you to the Web-based wizard that does the same thing as the software, including picking an admin password for the router. After that you can always go back to the router's Web interface to do more customization by pointing a connected computer's browser to 192.168.1.1, which is the router's default IP address. The log-in credentials are admin for the username and the password you create the first time around. As with all routers, you can always restore it to default factory settings via the recessed reset button on its back.
The router's interface is also similar to that of previous models and offers similar features. There are three major parts of the interface that you access from the left part of the page. The top part is the Setup wizard, which you can use to rerun the initial setup process; the middle is for General items; and the bottom is the Advanced Settings.
General offers a Network Map for viewing currently connected devices, including those connected to the router via the USB ports. You can click on one of the connected devices to interact with it. For example, you can quickly block a Wi-Fi client or set up a network storage feature of an external hard drive. You can also find features such as a Parental Control, a Traffic Manager that also includes the QoS features, and management of the router's USB ports.
The Parental Control feature is very easy to set up; you can quickly add a device to the managed list and quickly pick time slots when these devices can access the Internet. Unfortunately, you can't refine the restriction beyond having or not having access to the Internet. For example, you can't control access to particular Web sites.
The USB ports can be used for a lot of functions. You can connect USB external storage devices or printers to these ports and turn the router into a storage or print server. These ports can also be coupled with a cellular USB dongle so the router can work as a mobile hot spot or host a USB storage device to offer PC-less download, AiDisk, Media server, and AiCloud features.
AiDisk allows you to share the connected storage device's content via an FTP server. Media server enables streaming content from the connected storage device to DLNA-enabled network media streamers and iTunes.
AiCloud allows users to access to not only sharing/streaming content stored on the connected external drive from iOS and Android mobile devices (or computer via a browser), but also content on the computer connected to the router. This means you can easily share data stored on any computer in the network to remote users. For this feature to work, you need to know how to set up a DynDNS account, which can be done in a few steps within the router's Web interface.
In addition to the two main Wi-Fi networks, one for each band, the new router also offers up to six guest Wi-Fi networks, three for each band. While most of the time only two guest networks are needed, having more means you can set up each network for certain type of guest or certain Wi-Fi standards.
Dual-WAN and other business features
In addition to the aforementioned features for home users and the built-in VPN that's been available in previous models, the RT-AC68U comes with a few new business-oriented features from Asus, including support for dual-WAN and a set of network tools. (Note that these new features have also been made available to previous models, both the RT-AC66U and the RT-N66U, via firmware updates.)
When turned on, the Dual-WAN feature allows you to use one of the router's LAN ports as a secondary WAN port. Or you can also use the router's USB port for this feature if you want to use a cellular dongle. This feature allows you to use two Internet sources, such as Cable and DSL, at the same time, for either load balancing or failure contingency purposes. For those who need to be online all the time, this is an excellent feature.
The network tools offer a few utilities for advanced users to check the detailed status of the network. What I like the most is the included Wake on LAN function designed to wake up a computer in the network from sleep or turn it back on from off mode.
The RT-AC68U was the fastest Wi-Fi router I've tested to date, by far. With the TurboQam technology, I expected to see improvement only with legacy 802.11n clients and only on the 2.4GHz frequency band, but the router was excellent throughout. I tested it with Asus' PCE-68U add-on Wi-Fi adapter, which supports TurboQam, and the numbers were through the roof.
For 802.11ac, which is only available on the 5GHz band, the router offered the sustained real-world speed of some 65MBps (521Mbps) at a close range of 15 feet -- almost double the speed of the second fastest on the charts. This is about 8 times the speed of a regular Ethernet connection and very close to the speed of Gigabit Ethernet. At 100 feet away, this was reduced to about 42MBps (336Mbps), still superfast.
CNET Labs 802.11ac performance (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
On the 5GHz band, the 802.11n clients remained about the same speed as with the RT-AC66U, just slightly faster, averaging about 203Mbps and 176Mbps for short and long range, respectively.
CNET Labs 5GHz Wireless-N Performance (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
On the 2.4GHz, where generally the speed suffers the most from signal saturation, the Asus RT-AC68U offered a huge improvement, with 225Mbps at close range and 211Mbps at long range. This proved that the TurboQAM technology really works. I tried the router with some with existing non-TurboQAM clients, and I saw some improvement there, too.
CNET Labs 2.4GHz Wireless-N performance (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The router also offered exceptional range in my testing, with the effective range of about 200 feet. In my trial I could even connect to it from more than 300 feet away. Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are walls and many Wi-Fi devices that are out of my control. Generally, walls shorten the reach of a Wi-Fi signal, and other Wi-Fi devices create interference. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.
The RT-AC68U also passed my 48-hour stress test easily on both bands. It didn't disconnect once during this time.
For the router's network storage feature, I used a fast portable drive with its USB 3.0 port and the router was also very impressive. Via a Gigabit Ethernet connection, it offered a write speed of 41MBps and a read speed of 53.86MBps, the fastest I've seen among routers that support this feature. In fact, it was faster than even some dedicated NAS servers. At these speeds, all you need is a sizable external hard drive and your home network storage is set.
NAS performance via wired Gigabit Ethernet (in megabytes per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The new Asus RT-AC68U Dual-band Wireless-AC1900 Gigabit Router marks a new milestone in what you can expect from a home router. In addition to excellent Wi-Fi coverage, the router offers fast wired speed and has enough power to work as home server for media streaming, data sharing, and even personal cloud services.
The unique features, such as built-in VPN, Dual-WAN, and the advanced network tools also means that the router will also serve well as gateway for a small business. So far, of all the routers I've reviewed, this is the most impressive.
Note, however, that this is just the beginning; soon there will be more routers supporting the Broadcom BCM4709 chipset as well as more and more Wi-Fi clients that share the same TurboQAM technology. It will be interesting how the RT-AC68U will stack up against them. For now, if you're looking for a router that has it all, and can afford the $220 price-tag, this is it.